Gunsmoke actor James Arness took his career in a direction that he never expected would happen. However, it all worked out in his favor. He made some changes to incorporate the advice that he received early in his career to pursue his profession in Hollywood. Arness was a name that became so closely tied to Gunsmoke that one couldn’t imagine one without the other.
Arness first tackled an acting career after he was discharged from serving in World War II, where he earned the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the American Campaign Medal, among honorable achievements. He started as a radio announcer for Minneapolis station WLOL in 1945, but he was determined to make a living in Hollywood.
He appeared in some motion pictures, including The Thing from Another World, but his height made it difficult. No leading men wanted the 6’7″ actor standing next to them because he made them look so small in comparison. Arness finally found a place in television with Gunsmoke, which resulted in his career going legendary.
Arness participated in an interview with Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden, where he talked about his experience filming Gunsmoke. He also discussed his family, including his last name. Older projects credited him as “Aurness,” but the “u” is noticeably missing from his name in all of his later appearances.
“Well, that was actually more our family name,” Arness said about the name “Aurness.” “Our actual Norwegian name is Aursnes, but it got too complicated. My grandfather came over from Norway, and he went through Ellis Island, so they changed that name around to A-U-R—”
Arness continued: “And then when I got into — the first picture I was ever in was called The Farmer’s Daughter. It was a movie, and the producer of that movie was a really nice guy, Dore Schary, who later became the head of MGM. He suggested, ‘Why don’t you just drop the ‘u’ out and make ‘Arness?’ I wasn’t going to argue with the guy.”
There were some initial rumors that the CBS production asked legendary Western actor John Wayne to star as U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon. However, that wasn’t the case. Rather, the movie star recommended Arness for the leading Gunsmoke role. He didn’t want to accept the part because he thought it would destroy his chances to make it in the movie business, which is where he wanted to end up.
Wayne talked Arness into taking the Gunsmoke job, which became a stable gig that he wouldn’t regret. The actor became one of television’s biggest stars on one of the most successful shows of all time. The Western series placed at the top of the ratings for a few consecutive years and won five Primetime Emmy Awards over its staggering 20-season run.
Arness would make a grand return to Gunsmoke after CBS suddenly canceled the popular series with a made-for-TV movie in 1987’s Return to Dodge. It was so successful that it resulted in another four made-for-TV films to follow it up.
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